Today’s legal scholars draw from their knowledge of not only today’s laws, but also their understanding of legal precedence. As the legal issues facing society become more complex, so too must the means by which we consider the ethical and moral impacts of emerging legal problems. Read on to learn more about the top legal scholars studying in the field today.
From the first laws set forth in Hammurabi’s Code to today’s new laws governing the uses of unmanned drones and cybertechnologies, laws are more than merely a set of rules for humans to follow. Taken as a whole, the laws governing a society are a reflection of the values they hold. They must evolve over time in order to stay abreast of new technological and cultural challenges.
The world is facing an era of rapid technological change which has had serious implications for the legal landscape. Big questions have surfaced, such as, how do we balance First Amendment free speech rights with a rapidly worsening problem with strategic misinformation? How do we control private drone usage in such a way that privacy rights are respected? Is healthcare a privilege or a fundamental human right? What are the moral and ethical implications of for-profit healthcare? How should we interpret the 2nd Amendment, in light of technological and cultural changes?
The list to follow profiles some influential figures who have shaped the field of law and legal scholarship in recent years.
In what follows, we look at influential legal scholars over the last decade. Based on our ranking methodology, these individuals have significantly impacted the academic discipline of law within 2010-2020. Influence can be produced in a variety of ways. Some have had revolutionary ideas, some may have climbed by popularity, but all are academicians primarily working in law and legal studies. Read more about our methodology.
Note: This isn’t simply a list of the most influential legal scholars alive today. Here we are focused on the number of citations and web presence of scholars in the last 10 years. There are other highly influential scholars who simply haven’t been cited and talked about as much in the last 10 years, whereas some new faces have been making a splash in the news, speaking events, and publishing, publishing, publishing. Our AI is time sensitive. To find some of the big names you might have expected to see here, we encourage you to use our dynamic ranking system and check influence over the past 20 and 50 years.
Want more? Discover influential legal scholars throughout history:Of All Time | Last 100 Years | Last 50 Years | Last 20 Years Note: The links above take you to rankings that dynamically change as our AI learns new things!
Areas of Specialization: Law and Economics
Richard Posner is a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School who served as a United States Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. He earned his A.B. degree in English literature from Yale University (summa cum laude), and his LL.B. from Harvard Law School (magna cum laude and valedictorian).
Posner's background in economics informs his legal philosophy. His legal career has included a clerkship for Justice William J. Brennan, of the United States Supreme Court, a position under Thurgood Marshall, who was at the time, Solicitor General of the United States Department of Justice. By 1981, he was nominated for a seat on the bench for the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, where he remained until 2017.
He has written extensively on law, economics, literature, legal history, and current events. He is typically viewed as a conservative judge, but his pragmatic viewpoints have led him to a moderate position on complex issues, including abortion, animal rights, the war on drugs, policing, public education, incarceration, and many others.
Areas of Specialization: Constitutional Law, Civil Procedure
Erwin Chemerinsky is the dean of the University of California, Berkeley's School of Law, as well as their Jesse H. Choper Distinguished Professor of Law. He earned a B.S. in communications from Northwestern University, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.
His legal opinions have favored affirmative action, legalizing gay marriage, women's reproductive rights, and gun control. He has specialized in constitutional, appellate, and criminal law. He has argued several cases before the Supreme Court and authored numerous books, such as Closing the Courthouse Doors: How Your Constitutional Rights Became Unenforceable. He has taught law at numerous prestigious and influential institutions, including the University of California, Irvine School of Law, Duke University, University of California, Los Angeles Law School, and DePaul University of Law. The National Jurist: The Magazine for Law Students named him one of the "23 Law Professors to Take Before You Die" in 2011.
Areas of Specialization: Civil Liberities, Criminal Law
Alan Dershowitz is a former Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He earned his A.B. in political science from Brooklyn College and his LL.B from Yale Law School.
Known as a devil's advocate, he considers himself to be a civil libertarian. He has provided defense representation to numerous high-profile clients, including Harry Reems for Deep Throat, O.J. Simpson for murder, Jeffrey Epstein for sexual exploitation of minors, and Harvey Weinstein for sexual abuse. He has remained a champion for the rights of the accused, particularly in cases of rape.
He has written and commentated extensively in favor of the 2nd Amendment, legalized torture by warrant, and limited rights for animals (suggesting that we should treat animals in the same way we treat others of our species, and that to not do so is "speciesism".
Areas of Specialization: U.S. Constitutional Law
Laurence Tribe is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor for Harvard University's Law School and a co-founder of the American Constitution Society. He earned his A.B. and J.D. from Harvard University. Tribe is a well-known scholar of constitutional law.
Among his notable clients have been Sun Myung Moon, the leader of the Unification Church, the National Gay Task Force in their case against the Board of Education, and was a member of Al Gore's legal team in the wake of Florida's "hanging chad" debacle during the 2000 United States presidential election.
Tribe has also represented corporations in their desire for a recognition of personhood, insofar as the right of the corporation for due process. Of late, he has been active in commentary regarding the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States, and has drawn scrutiny for what appears to be an overzealous propensity for sharing information that has not been properly vetted for accuracy. Perhaps most specifically, his affinity for the Palmer Report, a blog given to exaggeration and hyperbole, has caused consternation among his colleagues.
Areas of Specialization: Jurisprudence, Philosophy of Law
John Finnis is the Biolchini Family Professor of Law and a Permanent Senior Distinguished Research Fellow for University of Notre Dame. He is also a Professor Emeritus of Law & Legal Philosophy at the University of Oxford. he earned his LL.B from the University of Adelaide's St. Mark's College. He then attended University College in Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, earning a PhD.
Well-known as a legal philosopher and scholar, Finnis has published a number of books and articles about the philosophical underpinnings of the law, including Moral Absolutes: Tradition, Revision, and Truth. He espouses a belief that there are seven basic goods that contribute to the well-being of humans: friendship, knowledge, play, life, aesthetics, practicality, and religion. His legal philosophy is strongly influenced by his Catholic faith.
Areas of Specialization: Administrative Law, Environmental Law and Law and Behavioral Economics
Cass Sunstein is Harvard Law School's Robert Walmsley University Professor. He earned his B.A. and J.D. from Harvard University and is a scholar of constitutional law and behavioral economics.
Sunstein has served multiple faculty roles, with professorships at the University of Chicago and Columbia Law School. He was nominated by President Barack Obama, and subsequently confirmed by the Senate, as Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for the United States Office of Management and Budget.
He is notable for his work with Timur Kuran on availability cascades, which refers to the way an idea can gain traction simply by being repeated. He has written about the way that citizens interact with the internet and how the ability for people to find others like them online has had the chilling effect of creating isolated communities resistant to outside information, a phenomenon known as cyberbalkanization.
Areas of Specialization: Human Rights
Michael Posner is co-director for the Center of Business and Human Rights and professor at the New York University Stern School of Business, and the founder of Human Rights First, a non-profit international human rights organization. He earned a B.A. at the University of Michigan and his J.D. at the University of California, Berkeley's Law School.
His professional focus has been on the promotion of human rights, and he has worked around the world to fortify systems of accountability to protect refugees and other vulnerable populations from genocide, war crimes, torture and sexual assaults. He worked with Peter Gabriel, a musician and activist, to develop WITNESS, an organization using video and online technologies to expose crimes against humanity throughout the world.
He has been a vocal critic of war time torture, advocating for the McCain Amendment, which effectively prohibited the torture of detainees. He has testified in Congress on numerous occasions, sharing his knowledge of human rights violations around the world.
Areas of Specialization: Civil Procedure, International Criminal Justice, Military Justice
Martha Minow is the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University. She earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan, a master's degree from Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. While at Yale University, she served as editor of the Yale Law Journal. Minow has been hugely influential as a teacher and mentor in law and helped to create Imagine Coexistence, which is a peace initiative led by the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees. She was a beloved mentor of former President Barack Obama, who learned from her during his study at Harvard Law School. She has been a senior fellow of Harvard's Safra Foundation Center on Ethics and Harvard's Society of Fellows. She has been a fellow of the American Bar Foundation, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.
Areas of Specialization: Legal Philosophy
Jeremy Waldron is a University Professor of the School of Law at New York University and an adjunct professor for Victoria University of Wellington. He earned a B.A. and an LL.B. from the University of Otago in New Zealand. He went on to earn a D.Phil. at Lincoln College, Oxford.
Waldron's extensive catalog of writings explore the rule of law, constitutionalism, homelessness, torture, and many other topics. His most recent book, One Another's Equals: The Basis of Human Equality, was published in 2017. He has critically examined the notion of human dignity, and the impacts of a leveling of social classes by way of elevation of all to royalty. In 2012, he wrote about human dignity in Dignity, Rank, and Rights.
Areas of Specialization: International Law, Law and Economics, Contract Law
Eric Posner is a professor of law at the University of Chicago's Law School. He earned his B.A. and M.A. in philosophy from Yale University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. His interests have included game theory, international law, foreign relations law, cost-benefit analysis, and national security privacy issues.
He has defended the programs deployed by the National Security Agency to harvest unlimited information about citizen behavior and communications online and via telephone. He argues that American citizens voluntarily hand over an absurd amount of their personal data to strangers and that there had been no evidence that the NSA had ever used the data gathered to improperly target a citizen.
He has published books such as The Twilight of Human Rights Law and Last Resort: The Financial Crisis and the Future Bailouts. He is a co-founder of The New Rambler, an online site for reviews of books dedicated to the social sciences. Most recently, Posner collaborated with a colleague to write "Sponsor an Immigrant Yourself" an article for Politico Magazine, in which they argue in favor of a controversial approach to immigration reform, in which citizens can sponsor a migrant who might live in their home and work for below minimum wage.
Areas of Specialization: Jurisprudence, Constitutional Law, Contract Theory
Randy Barnett is the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Legal Theory at Georgetown University. He earned his B.A. from Northwestern University and his J.D. from Harvard Law School. He is a noted scholar in constitutional law and jurisprudence.
A self-professed libertarian, Barnett is a proponent of liberal interpretations of justice. Specifically, he holds the opinion that the federal courts must vigorously defend the personal liberties of private citizens, as a check on overreach by the executive and legislative branches. He has argued cases before the Supreme Court, perhaps most notably Gonzalez v. Raich (a medical marijuana) and NFIB v. Sebelius (a case against the Affordable Care Act). He has published numerous significant works regarding constitutional law, including his most recent book, An Introduction to Constitutional Law: 100 Supreme Court Cases Everyone Should Know, which he wrote with colleague Josh Blackman.
Areas of Specialization: Free Speech, Constitutional Law, Regulation, and Public Policy
Lee Bollinger is Columbia University's 19th president. He earned a B.S. in political science at the University of Oregon and his J.D. from Columbia University's Law School. He is most noted for his scholarship regarding First Amendment and free speech issues, as well as being a defendant in two major U.S. Supreme Court cases involving affirmative action in higher education admissions.
He has spent much of his career in higher education administration, with positions at the helm of the University of Michigan Law School, Dartmouth College, and Columbia University. He is among the highest paid college presidents in the United States, with a compensation of over $4 million annually. In those roles, he has been, at times, criticized for an excess of international travel, advocating for expansion of campus assets by way of eminent domain seizures in the surrounding neighborhoods, and for defending the free speech of controversial figures such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Areas of Specialization: Information Technology Law, Industrial Information Economy
Yochai Benkler is co-director and faculty for the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, as well as the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School. He earned his LL.B from Tel Aviv University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.
His research explores commons-based efforts such as Wikipedia, Creative Commons, MOOCs and open source applications to manage resources using networked environments. His book, The Wealth of Networks, published under a Creative Commons license, investigates the transformative potential of such open and free sharing of information and resources, as well as the peer networks that develop in such environments. He suggests in that work that by abolishing ownership of ideas through patents and copyrights, innovation would be unfettered and the economic inefficiencies plaguing the system today would disappear.
Areas of Specialization: International Business, Law and Development, Globalization and the Law
Amy Chua is the John M. Duff Jr. Professor of Law at Yale University's School of Law. She earned her A.B. in economics from Harvard College and a J.D. from Harvard University. She was an executive editor for the Harvard Law Review - the first Asian American to hold such a role for the publication.
An expert in the study of ethnic conflict, globalization, international business, and law, Chua has been named as a Brave Thinker by The Atlantic, and among Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people.
She is perhaps best known for her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she details her strict parenting style, intended to foster high achieving children. The book was an international bestseller. She was also very critically acclaimed for her first book, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, which was named one of the best books of the year by The Economist and The Guardian. The book explores the correlations between inequities in economics and politics and ethnic conflict.
Areas of Specialization: Constitutional Law, First Amendment, Legal History, Equal Protection
Robert Post is a professor of law at Yale Law School. He earned a B.A. and Ph.D in the History of American Civilization from Harvard University and a J.D. from Yale University. An expert in constitutional law, he has published a number of works about law and the history of legal theory. For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom, written with colleague Matthew Finkin, has emerged as a seminal text regarding academic freedom.
He was a dean at the Yale Law School from 2009 to 2017, taking the place of Harold Koh, who was departing Yale for a position as legal advisor to the U.S. State Department.
Areas of Specialization: White Collar Crime, Public Corruption, Cybercrime
Preetinder Singh Bharara is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence for New York University's School of Law. He graduated from Harvard University with his A.B. and earned his J.D. from Columbia University. He is the former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, a role in which he earned a reputation as among the most relentless and effective prosecutors of corruption and white-collar crime.
While serving as one of Manhattan's Assistant United States Attorneys, he brought major criminal cases against organized crime families such as the Gambino crime family and heavily networked Asian gangs. His prosecution of crimes on Wall Street only added to his reputation, as he investigated and prosecuted Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, and the Galleon Group.
His office was also known for its investigations into political corruption among Republicans and Democrats, with notable convictions of the Majority Leader of the State Senate, Dean Skelos, for accepting bribes, and Sheldon Silver, the Speaker of the New York State Assembly, for public corruption. Bharara was fired in 2017 for refusing to resign at the request of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He, among the other remaining 46 U.S. Attorneys, were fired after Donald J. Trump was inaugurated.
Areas of Specialization: Constitutional Law, National Security, Military, War and Peace
David D. Cole currently holds the title of National Legal Director of the American Civil LIberties Union, which he began in 2016. Outside of this, Cole has been known as a professor of law, a civil rights and first amendment advocate, an author of books and articles in various legal fields, and a legal correspondent in the media.
Cole completed his undergraduate studies in 1980 at Yale University (graduating magna cum laude) and stayed on to earn his J.D in 1984. Between graduation and taking his current post at ACLU, Cole had a prolific career in constitutional law and civil liberties. He began as a clerk under Judge Arlin M. Adams of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit before joining the Center for Constitutional Rights as an attorney. In the 1990s, he appeared in numerous cases in U.S. District and Circuit courts, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court. Additionally, he has held teaching positions at University College London, Georgetown University, and New York University.
Areas of Specialization: Constitutional Law
Floyd Abrams is an attorney at Cahill Gordon & Reindel, the William J. Brennan Jr. Visiting Professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a specialist in constitutional law. He earned his undergraduate degree from Cornell University and his J.D. from Yale Law School.
He is best known for his work on First Amendment cases such as his representation of The New York Times and Judith Miller in the CIA leak investigation. He is widely considered one of the most influential lawyers in America and has been the recipient of many awards, including the William J. Brennan, Jr. Award, the Learned Hand Award of the American Jewish Committee , the Thurgood Marshall Award of the New York State Bar Association, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from The National Law Journal. Most recently, he was awarded the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Lifetime Achievement Award, for his efforts on behalf of the protection of free speech.
Areas of Specialization: Constitutional Law, Privacy, First Amendment, Criminal Law
Jed Rubenfeld currently holds the title of Professor of Law at the Yale Law school, and has been a visiting professor at the Stanford Law School and the Duke University School of Law. Rubenfeld studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Princeton University (graduating summa cum laude in 1980), and earned his J.D. at Harvard Law School in 1986 (graduating magna cum laude). Additionally, Rubenfeld studied theatre at the Juilliard School, which no doubt has influenced his efficacy in court.
Rubenfeld is recognized as an expert on constitutional law (and the First Amendment in particular) and privacy law. His legal career includes clerkship for Judge Joseph T. Sneed on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, as well as holding the position of Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York. Rubenfeld has also worked in the private sector as an associate with the private business law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. Rubenfeld began teaching at Yale in 1990.
Areas of Specialization: Law and Economics
Guido Calabresi is a Senior United States Circuit Judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and Sterling Professor Emeritus of Law at Yale University. He is known, along with his colleagues Ronald Coase and Richard Posner , as a founder of the interdisciplinary study of law and economics. He earned a B.S. from Yale University, a B.A. from Magdalen College of Oxford University, an LL.B from Yale Law School and an M.A. from University of Oxford.
Calabresi's career has been remarkable. He was the youngest full professor at Yale Law School and he has pioneered methods of applying economic reasoning to the study of law. His tenure as Dean of Yale Law School elevated the school to a world class center of scholarship. He has written over 100 articles and 7 books, including The Costs of Accidents: A Legal and Economic Analysis. He has mentored many of today's top legal minds, including Supreme Court Justices Sotomayor, Thomas, and Alito and former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey.
Areas of Specialization: Philosophy of Law, Constitutional Interpretation, Civil Liberties, Law and Religion
Notable conservative American legal scholar Robert P. George currently holds the titles there of McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. He has a varied educational background. He completed his undergraduate education at Swarthmore College, earned his JD at Harvard Law School, and earned a master of theological studies at the Harvard Divinity School. He also earned several advanced degrees at the University of Oxford.
George was never a lawyer, but is a highly influential legal scholar and philosopher. He began his academic career at Princeton University in 1985 and quickly became tenure-track. Currently he is also a visiting professor of the Harvard Law School, and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. His work and teaching are primarily focused on civil liberties, constitutional interpretation, and the philosophy of law.
Areas of Specialization: Law and Religion, Constitutional Law, History of Legal Thought
Noah Feldman is a legal scholar and professor of Law at the Harvard Law School primarily known for work on the overlap of law and religion. Feldman completed his undergraduate studies in 1992 in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard. In 1994 he earned a DPhil in Islamic thought at University of Oxford, and his JD at Yale Law School in 1997.
Considering that most of Feldman's focus is on law and religion, much of his work is concerned with First Amendment issues; however, this also influences his other area of specializtion, Islam. In fact, Feldman was a senior constitutional advisor to the Coalition of Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2003, and advised on drafting the country's interim constitution. Most recently, in 2019, Feldman testified before the House Judiciary Committee as part of the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump.
Areas of Specialization: Constitutional Law, Civil Liberties
Formerly the president of the American Civil Liberties Union, Nadine Strossen has built a career as a champion of civil liberties and advocacy. Currently she is a professor at New York Law School and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Strossen completed her undergraduate studies at Harvard in 1972, and her J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1975, graduating magna cum laude. Following her studies, Strossen practiced law in Minneapolis and New York before joining the law faculty of New York Law School in 1988. She assumed her role as president of the ACLU in 1991, becoming the first woman and youngest person to hold the position ever; she remained at the post until 2008.
Among Strossen's views are cannabis legalization (she is a co-chair for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), and resisting hate speech through counter-speech and activism (rather than censorship and legislation).
Areas of Specialization: Intersectionality, Critical Race Theory, Feminism and Law, Civil Rights
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw is a lawyer, scholar, philosopher, and major civil rights advocate. Currently she holds the position of professor at the UCLA School of Law, as well as at Columbia Law School. Crenshaw completed her undergraduate education at Cornell University before receiving her JD from Harvard law School in 1984, and later a master of laws from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Influential far beyond just the realm of law, Crenshaw is one of the founders of critical race theory and the concept of intersectionality. These are methods of analyzing issues in regards to the influence of race, as well as the intersection (hence the name) of various aspects of identity, such as economic status, education, and gender. Crenshaw notes, of course, that she put the name "intersectionality" on the concept, but it existed before in the work of people such as Angela J. Davis and Deborah King. These ideas are just as often applied in fields including literature and art, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology as they are in law and legal theory.
Areas of Specialization: Constitutional Law, Foreign Relations Law
John Yoo is the Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He graduated from Harvard University with a B.A. and from Yale University with a J.D. He is well known for his scholarship regarding executive power, domestic surveillance, and searches.
Most notably, his name is associated with his Torture Memos, which mounted a defense of the use of torture techniques such as waterboarding as a means of interrogation. His position on the matter was broadly criticized, with Secretary of State Colin Powell characterizing his position as a violation of the tenets of the Geneva Conventions. Yoo's positions on the extent and inviolability of presidential powers in decision making were too broad and represented an overreach of power that could remove the necessary controls on military action. He even insisted that the executive branch had nearly limitless latitude to surveil American citizens without a warrant should the President deem it necessary.